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Atty. Gen. Eric Holder hears L.A. stories of racial profiling

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. shakes hands with an an attendee at the Crenshaw event, held as part of his Smart on Crime initiative, aimed at making the criminal justice system fairer and more efficient.
(Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times)

The 12 young men spoke frankly about their run-ins with the law. They said they’d been racially profiled, thrown into the back of police cruisers. They spoke about the pain the criminal justice system had caused them, and they offered solutions on how to fix it.

They did not hold back. And they were encouraged not to by the nation’s top law enforcement official, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.

Holder, the first African American to hold the Cabinet job, listened silently, nodding in agreement. He spent Thursday afternoon at the Brotherhood Crusade Youth Source Center in the Crenshaw district as part of his Smart on Crime initiative, which is aimed at reforming the criminal justice system so it operates more fairly and efficiently.

“Some kids, like myself, are treated like criminals,” Christopher Hector, 18, told him. “We not only have the gang members we have to worry about, but also the law enforcement — both of them are threatening to our lives as young men of color.”

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Holder, who recently announced he is stepping down, agreed.

“It’s a reality. It’s one that if we don’t confront as a nation we’ll never get to the place where we want to be,” Holder said. “It’s good that you shared that with us, but I’m glad you worked your way through it.... I’m proud of you.”

Holder sought the men’s input on how to remake the criminal justice system, how to forge better relationships between law enforcement and communities of color. He also touted My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative launched this year by President Obama to increase opportunities for young minority men.

Holder told the group, all of whom had experiences with the criminal justice system, that he wasn’t too different from them while growing up in New York City. He, too, he said, had many negative interactions with law enforcement.

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“At the end of the day, I’m you — a little grayer, but I can still hoop,” he said to laughs.

“I’d like to see that!” said Gabriel Hercules, 22, who earned his high school equivalency degree at the center and now attends Antioch University in Los Angeles.

Holder said that when he was a federal prosecutor in Washington, he and his cousin were late to a movie in the tony Georgetown area and they started to run to make it in time. A police officer rolled up, detained them and questioned them.

“What that officer saw was two black guys running in a predominantly white neighborhood at night,” he said. “It was humiliating.”

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Marcus Davis, who wants to be a youth counselor, told Holder that he’d seen a lack of effort on the part of law enforcement officials to get to know the people they police. He said the presence of several FBI agents, who serve as Holder’s security detail, initially made him a bit uneasy. But, he said, after he introduced himself his nervousness subsided.

“What would help is to build relationships between us and law enforcement — the same way you came down here from Washington, D.C., to talk to us — it makes me feel like I know you,” Davis said.

“A familiarity?” Holder asked.

“Yes, it takes away from the fact that you have on a uniform and a badge — it makes us feel that we’re the same people,” he said.

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Holder, motioning to an aide, said, “We’re taking notes and we’re going to take this stuff to Washington.”

Hercules said the group was lucky: Everyone in it had mentors or others who cared about them after they had gotten into trouble.

“The more men of color, who look like you do, who show you passion, show you commitment — it awakens a little fire in you and makes you want to do better because somebody showed that they love you,” he said.

Holder ended the meeting by asking them to be mentors to other young people who need help, as they had.

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“I’m proud of you, but I expect a great deal from you,” he said. “You have the capacity to do great things and I expect that from every one of you.”

After taking photos with the group, he made his way out.

“Cool Gabe,” Holder said as he approached Hercules, his hand extended.

With a wide grin and no attempt to hide his astonishment, he shook the attorney general’s hand.

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“He remembered my name,” he blurted out.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

Twitter: @stephenceasar


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